The ever-mercurial Prince — who battled everyone from Warner Bros. Records to bootleggers for control of his music — churned through lawyers, managers and financial advisers in his 40-year career, leaving no doubt who was in charge.
Yet now, two months after his death, it’s attorneys and accountants who are running Prince’s show.
Prince would go crazy at the thought.
“He looked at managers, lawyers and business people as necessary evils,” said Alan Leeds, who worked closely with Prince from 1983 to 1992 as tour manager and head of Paisley Park Records. “I don’t know that Prince trusted anybody.”
On Monday, nearly two dozen attorneys are expected to weigh in at the Carver County courthouse over how to verify who qualifies as Prince’s heirs under the Minnesota law. Those attorneys represent more than a dozen people who have filed claims to be Prince’s kin, entitling them to some or all of his estate, which has been valued at $100 million to $300 million.
Prince, who died from an accidental painkiller overdose, apparently had no will.
The evolving phalanx of legal experts comes from near and far and includes some curious characters. Some are from the Twin Cities, such as entertainment lawyer Ken Abdo, who represents three of Prince’s six siblings in the case. One is from California — CNN political commentator Van Jones, a former environmental adviser to President Obama and Yale-educated lawyer who joined the fray last week on behalf of Prince’s half brother Omarr Baker.
The lineup also includes one lawyer with his own publicist — and legal troubles of his own. Patrick Cousins of West Palm Beach, Fla., represents a man serving time in a Colorado prison on a gun charge who claims to be Prince’s son. Cousins has been sued in federal court for allegedly misrepresenting that he worked for Prince and could get him to headline a concert in Atlanta.
Heir issues aside, Bremer Trust, the special administrator for the estate, has hired two consultants — including an entertainment lawyer who parted company with Prince years ago — to help decide how best to exploit his assets: L. Londell McMillan, a New York attorney who also has worked for Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder, and longtime music-biz executive Charles Koppelman, who, at EMI in 1996, handled Prince’s “Emancipation” album and most recently served as an adviser to Adam Levine, Nicki Minaj and Martha Stewart.
The estate drama is “a lawyer’s delight,” veteran Los Angeles-based entertainment lawyer L. Lee Phillips said.
Phillips holds the record for representing Prince — 12 or 13 years.
“He totally trusted me,” Phillips said last week. “He was most private and introverted in person but extroverted onstage. His focus was about artistry and creativity.”
Losses lead to panic
For nearly a decade, Prince had a stable team — entertainment lawyer Phillips, who works with Barbra Streisand, the Eagles and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys; business manager and accountant Fred Moultrie, and the management team of Cavallo, Ruffalo and Fargnoli, which worked with Earth, Wind & Fire, Weather Report and Little Feat. They took him from his albums “1999” and “Purple Rain” to “Sign o’ the Times” and “Lovesexy.”
In those days, Prince lived like a king.
“I remember him playing Paris and he flew 100 of his best friends from Minneapolis in a 747 he leased,” Phillips recalled.
But Prince panicked when his 1988 Lovesexy Tour — with its elaborate staging that included a basketball court and Prince driving a 1967 Thunderbird on the tri-level stage — lost major money. He summoned Phillips and Moultrie to Germany to fire Cavallo, Ruffalo and Fargnoli. Soon after, Phillips and Moultrie were dismissed, too.
After that, Prince essentially managed himself, Leeds said, but hired people ad hoc to do his bidding. He changed advisers nearly as often as he changed hairdos.
For instance, he enlisted Albert Magnoli, rookie director of “Purple Rain,” to be his manager, and used Magnoli’s lawyers. After Magnoli was out of the picture, Prince hired his former bodyguard Gilbert Davison and publicist Jill Willis to be his managers.
Leeds recalls that at one point in the mid-90s, Prince had fired so many staffers that he decided to sign the checks himself — but his longtime personal assistant had to show him how to fill out a check because he’d never written one.
Said Leeds: “Basically, if you wore a suit or had a [college] degree, he saw you as a shark. He’d go: ‘If you’re an artist, then you can understand my art.’ ”
When it came to arguments, Prince would typically quash things with his trump card, asking simply: “Which instrument do you play?”
‘Disdain for lawyers’
High-profile Minneapolis litigator Robert Weinstine sensed Prince’s skepticism about barristers.
“He had a healthy disdain for lawyers,” said Weinstine, who represented Prince in 1996 when he was seeking an injunction against his nannies for trying to sell photos of Prince and his then-wife Mayte’s severely deformed baby. “At the Warner Bros. deal, they really took advantage of a 17-year-old kid. Then there were so many people down the road that wanted to get involved with him more for the recognition than doing service.”
Weinstine was impressed by Prince.
“I found him to be very, very bright, insightful, gentle,” the lawyer said. “He was very helpful. He would come into court with his bodyguard and sit at the counsel’s table and make notes.”
In the last few years, Prince didn’t necessarily rely on a lawyer to handle his high-level negotiations but rather a veteran AFL-CIO labor leader. Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, from the San Francisco Bay Area, acted as a de facto manager in consultation with Oakland lawyer Diana Frappier.
Control was ‘big issue’
Some people who knew Prince said his distrust was due to a dysfunctional childhood.
“Prince would trust but only to a certain extent,” said Owen Husney, Prince’s first manager who now teaches a class at UCLA called “Beyond the Creative: What You Need to Know about the Business of Music.”
“And then he’d wonder why you’re screwing him,” Husney said. “Control was a big issue for him. When an attorney talks to you about clauses and ‘this will happen’ and what sounds like gibberish because you don’t know the terminology, you’re out of control of your own destiny.”
Husney tells the story of encountering an associate of a prominent Los Angeles entertainment lawyer who’d represented Prince. They parted ways after several months because the star refused to consider any estate planning.
Prince was clearly aware of the consequences of what could possibly happen without a proper will. One day in the late 1980s, he discovered Leeds listening to some unreleased James Brown recordings because Leeds was compiling a boxed set for Brown’s label. At first, Prince — a Brown fan — was enamored, but then his demeanor changed, Leeds recalled. He said Prince went on a diatribe, concerned that Brown didn’t know about the project.
Leeds remembered an infuriated Prince saying that he would not lose control of his own recordings the way the late Jimi Hendrix did. Hendrix’s relatives hired musicians to complete his unfinished recordings.
But with no will, Prince’s heirs — whoever they turn out to be — will decide what happens with his music.
Said Weinstine: “I believe if he could have developed a trusting, stable relationship with a lawyer, we wouldn’t have faced this situation.”
Staff writer Emma Nelson contributed to this story.
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